A Spill Bubbles Up

Illustration by Jorge Colombo

"You die of cancer in Greenpoint,” says Tom Stagg, a retired NYPD detective who can name 36 people from his block over the years who’ve had cancer. “That’s what you do.”

And that’s one reason Manhattan lawyer Marc Bern was talking to 100 people one evening last week in the Brooklyn neighborhood. “You have been the victims of the oil companies,” he told the crowd at St. Stanislaus Memorial Post, an American Legion hall. A mix of longtime Greenpoint residents and recent immigrants from Poland, they gathered to learn details of a 17-million-gallon oil spill that’s lingered beneath their homes for decades—and the $58 billion class action suit Bern’s firm filed against Exxon Mobil, BP, and Chevron just a few days earlier. They sat at long wooden tables, on which plastic containers full of Italian cookies sat near piles of photocopied retainer contracts awaiting signatures.

“Today is an important day,” Bern declared, pausing to allow an interpreter to translate his words into Polish.

“Today?” murmured Marion Daverin, who was sitting several rows back. “It’s been going on for years already.” Daverin, a 52-year-old lifelong Greenpoint resident, says she’s known for a while that there was some sort of spill, but not its extent. Details were sketchy at best, when they weren’t completely off base. People mistakenly thought all the spilled petroleum had poured into Newtown Creek, where the Coast Guard first spotted it in 1978—the same year the Love Canal toxic mess made national headlines. Others thought that the lake of oil under Greenpoint, pooling on the groundwater, lingered only under the oil companies’ properties lining the Brooklyn side of the creek. Many assumed that the oil—original estimates put the spill at a staggering 30 million gallons—had already been cleaned up. “We never thought it was hazardous to our health,” Daverin told the Voice . “Only in more recent years did we even know it was under our houses.”

Napoli Bern Ripka is the second cadre of lawyers to come into the neighborhood in the past six months with a lawsuit alleging that cleanup hasn’t moved quickly enough. The Los Angeles firm Girardi & Keese filed a civil suit against the oil companies on behalf of individual residents in November; neighborhood people credit that firm with spreading awareness of the spill through Greenpoint.

Not everyone’s happy about that. “The more publicity, the worse it is for property values,” Assemblyman Joe Lentol told the St. Stanislaus Memorial Post crowd. “Not because I put property before life but because, for people in this room, their property is their life. It’s all they have.”

He stood up during Bern’s question-and-answer period and said, “What I worry is that we may be having a feeding frenzy of lawyers.” And of the growing publicity, he added, “Another legitimate concern is that we don’t want this community to be portrayed as a Love Canal.”

The assemblyman, who’s represented Greenpoint in Albany since 1972,style="mso-spacerun: yes">  told the Voice he worries that the spill will be “overdramatized.” Still, Lentol has been openly critical of how the cleanup has progressed and has pressed for a new round of tests. He does acknowledge that public pressure would likely prompt the oil companies to remove the spill faster. However, he told the Voice, the lawsuits “should proceed as quietly as [they] possibly can in order to avoid making it into something it’s not.”

But with two law firms vying for their attention, Greenpoint residents who never knew they lived on top of oil are quickly learning. Now the question isn’t whether there’s an oil spill under a residential part of Greenpoint, but how one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s history—eclipsing the Exxon Valdez by at least 6 million gallons—stayed under wraps so long.

One fact residents are now realizing is that chemical vapors rising off the “plume” may be toxic; a study done last summer detected dangerous levels of benzene, a carcinogen, in soil only a few feet below street level. Although the state’s department of health has long maintained there’s no cancer cluster in Greenpoint, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise: Longtime residents who spoke with the Voice count friends and neighbors diagnosed with leukemia or pancreatic cancer, or know of women who’ve had reproductive problems. A noticeable number of the ill, they say, are in their late twenties or younger.

A working-class neighborhood with large swatches of land zoned for heavy industry, Greenpoint has long been steeped in pollutants from oil refineries, an incinerator, a glue factory, a sewage treatment plant, and the countless other toxic-waste-producing facilities that opened and closed over the years. The plume is just one problem of many, which some residents suggest is a reason why public concern over the oil spill never amassed. They also wonder whether it would’ve been a much bigger media story had it occurred somewhere wealthier or more picturesque than Greenpoint.

The spill did make headlines over the past three decades, and local activists were on the case. Public meetings were held as issues arose, and newspapers covered the story when new developments emerged. But for long stretches of time there weren’t many of either: Exxon Mobil, which the state ordered to clean up the spill in 1990, has been removing the oil since 1995, and BP and Chevron followed suit. Prior to 1990, says Lentol, “We weren’t as aware of the environmental dangers as we are today. . . . The information was out there, but we didn’t fathom its importance.”

State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Maureen Wren points out that the agency conducts public meetings and last year posted a page on its website assuring readers that the “DEC and responsible parties [are moving] forward with investigation and product recovery,” proffering long, jargon-filled explanations.

Another type of language barrier presents itself in Greenpoint’s large community of Polish immigrants. An aide in Lentol’s Brooklyn office says a number of people have come in whose “English wasn’t great, or they couldn’t speak English at all.” And factor in the recent influx of younger, wealthier people gentrifying Greenpoint, who often know little of the neighborhood’s history and nothing about the spill.

The fact that the spill lies underground—some pools as deep as 40 feet below street surface—may be why its significance was overlooked for so long. The stench hovers in the neighborhood in the summer, but only the oil that has oozed into Newtown Creek can be readily seen, and the few places where residents can even reach the water are nothing more than litter-strewn dead ends. No photographs exist of oil-drenched animals or houses stained black, and the description of an enormous migrating subterranean plume reads like science fiction.

In the past, the public accepted what the companies and the government told them: The oil poses no risks, and it’s being removed as quickly as possible, reassurances that the two new lawsuits dispute. Exxon Mobil and the DEC say almost 9 million gallons of oil have been removed so far, and they estimate it will take 20 more years to get at the rest—and that’s just the liquid oil. Experts working with Girardi & Keese believe that contamination ranges much farther than maps indicate, and Exxon Mobil engineers have admitted that they’ll likely never be able to clean up all the oil, because it migrates and mixes with the soil. Exxon Mobil spokesman Brian Dunphy says, “We’ll continue our remediation activities until the job is done,” adding that the company is using the best technology it has to remove the oil.

More and more residents, however, are dismayed. “I guess I’m naive,” says Jane Pedota, a plaintiff in the Girardi & Keese civil suit, who’s lived on Hausman Street atop the plume for 27 years. “You think with all that oil under there, of course they’d be responsible. They’d go down there and take care of it. You put it in the back of your head.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

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